Officials aren’t sounding the alarm on COVID
By Nancy Wartik
The BA.5 subvariant, now the cause of at least two-thirds of U.S. cases, is driving a COVID-19 spike in some 40 states. But Americans, exhausted from repeated surge warnings, are less likely than ever to wear masks or avoid crowds. Many U.S. health officials are not speaking out against such practices.
“I think they’re trying to keep their powder dry,” said my colleague Thomas Fuller, our San Francisco bureau chief. “They seem to believe it’s not realistic to bring back severe measures right now.”
In Chicago, where the COVID-19 warning levels jumped to “high” last week, Dr. Allison Arwady, the health department commissioner, said, “I feel strongly that you can’t just kind of cry wolf all the time.”
Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer and medical director, said that, despite higher COVID-19 levels, he felt “much more empowered that we have the ability to protect ourselves.” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent White House briefing that Americans should not let COVID-19 “disrupt our lives.” (Los Angeles County, however, is planning to reinstate indoor mask mandates on July 29 as the state’s COVID-19 cases increase.)
Home testing makes the current data murkier. Not since the earliest months has so little been known about how many coronavirus infections there are. Slightly higher death rates, a 20% increase in hospitalizations and other signs point to a new surge, but hospitalizations and deaths are far fewer than in previous spikes, with many more people vaccinated or able to treat symptoms.
I spoke to Fuller as he drove to Yosemite to check on the Washburn fire. He reiterated health officials are in a tough situation, given extreme pandemic fatigue. In the Bay Area, where he lives, Fuller said most people continue to mask, but some are so frustrated, they’re “throwing caution to the winds. They have a sense of futility that wasn’t as evident in the past.”
The chief concern he drew from his reporting, Fuller said, is that this stage of the virus might be “kind of creating a giant petri dish” for subvariants.
“Chances go up when more virus is circulating,” he said. “With so many more bodies hosting it, experts told me there’s so much more potential for future variants which may or may not be more serious.”
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virus expert at the University of California, San Francisco, stressed to Fuller that it is crucial that new variants be detected quickly, especially in wastewater. (Chiu detected the first U.S. case of omicron in a traveler, then learned it was in wastewater two weeks beforehand.) That is the point where public restrictions aimed at prevention could become urgent again, Chiu said.
As officials hold back and the public drops its guard, Fuller said, “I think we’re at a point of trying to understand the consequences of complacency. We don’t understand them yet. But the more widespread the virus, the higher the risks of a new variant. That’s the concern that the people I spoke to expressed.”